Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Fall Guy (1947)

Cornell Woolrich's novels and short stories were a rich source of inspiration for films noirs and beyond. Noirs like 'Black Angel', 'The Chase', 'Fear In The Night' and 'Phantom Lady' but also the Hitchcock classic 'Rear Window' were all based on his writings. 1947's 'Fall Guy' was based on his short story 'Cocaine' which first appeared in the legendary pulp magazine Black Mask in 1940 under the title 'C-Jag', and was also published in other magazines under the titles 'Dream Of Death' and 'Just Enough To Cover A Thumbnail'.

Director Reginald Le Borg and cinematographer Mack Stengler don't have a lot of noir credentials under their belt, they worked mainly on quick programmers for the lower end of a double bill. Stengler did work on another Woolrich adaptation tho, 1948's film noir 'I Wouldn't Be In Your Shoes'. First time producer Walter Mirisch would later, together with his brothers, produce several classic movies like 'Some Like It Hot' and 'West Side Story'!

Tom Cochrane (Leo Penn, credited as Clifford Penn) is the 'fall guy' here. One night he passes out in a dark alley, with someone else's blood all over his clothes and his pocket knife. In hospital the next morning, police inspector Shannon (Douglas Fowley) is asking him what happened and who the victim is. Cochrane decides to escape rather than get arrested there and then. He manages to convince his fiancee Lois (Teala Loring) and his brother-in-law Mac McLaine (Robert Armstrong) that he's innocent even if he has only a vague recollection of what happened. He remembers getting dragged to a party by an elevator jockey called Joe (Elisha Cook Jr.), whom he just met that evening. At the party torch singer Marie (Virginia Dale) slipped him what must've been a spiked drink... After he woke up, he found the dead body of a girl in a closet in the apartment. Barely able to stand up, he managed to go outside before collapsing in the alley... Mac, who's a cop, decides he wants to help Cochrane find out the truth before turning him in. Together they go in search of the apartment, Joe, and Marie...

I was not really aware of Leo Penn (credited as 'Clifford Penn' here) before watching this movie, and I can't say I was impressed by his acting in this movie. 'Lightweight' seems to be the right word to describe him. At no point does he convince or seem terribly upset with the predicament he's supposed to face. Penn would quickly move on to work in TV, both as an actor as well as a director. As an interesting sidenote, he's the father of more famous actors Sean & Chris Penn.

Teala Loring comes off as a 'B' version of Rita Hayworth in the looks department, which is not a bad thing at all! She is also pretty decent in this movie acting-wise altho her part as Tom's fiancee is fairly limited. 'Fall Guy' was one of her final movies before retiring from acting, her credentials include such B's as 'Bluebeard' and the Charlie Chan vehicle 'Dark Alibi'. In 'Fall Guy' she lives in with her uncle Jim while waiting for Tom to make up his mind about their marriage and future life. Uncle Jim is played by Charles Arnt, a very familiar face in dozens of 40s movies including noirs like 'The Man Who Cheated Himself', 'Strange Illusion' and 'Hollow Triumph'.
- I take trips in my dreams too, but I don't call it killing!
- Yeah but you don't wake up with blood on your clothes... on your hands... on your knife.
Robert Armstrong is good enough as the grumpy but steadfast brother-in-law. However, whoever cast Armstrong forgot that this 50-something year old actor, with his rugged face and grey hair that made him look even older, was supposed to play a 36-year old man, as shown in a newspaper article halfway through the movie! Not that I have a problem with Armstrong, he's fine, but it makes you wonder if the casting director even looked at the script. Also watch closely as Mac, with Cochrane and Lois, drive away from a cinema. The marquee of the theater shows it's playing a double bill consisting of 'Decoy' and an unnamed 2nd movie. 'Decoy' is a wacky, unique film noir from 1946, with Robert Armstrong as a criminal who dies in the gas chamber and is then brought back to life again!

Saving the best for last, noir favorite Elisha Cook Jr. is far and away the biggest name in this movie. He is his usual solid self, but he doesn't have to do a whole lot here. It's one of the unwritten laws of film noir that Elisha Cook Jr. does not make it to the end of a noir alive or victorious. This noir is no different! And that's not giving away too much. Either way, it's always a pleasure to see him turn up in a noir.

Despite the obvious low budget for the movie, production company Monogram Pictures wasn't one of the so-called Poverty Row film companies for no reason, the movie looks fairly decent, also by cleverly mixing in quite a bit of stock footage for the sequences showing Mac and Cochrane walking all over NYC to find clues. In an unintentionally funny instance tho, there's a birds eye view of a NYC street at night that clearly freezes for a second or so, cars stopping all at the exact same moment, before dissolving into the next shot. Sets are also recycled, interior sets doubling for several apartments and such. But this is most painfully obvious when several entrances to subway stations all look exactly the same, except for a banner hanging above the entrance with a different street number. Chances are all those scenes were shot in a single afternoon as well.
Then I saw the singer, she wasn't bad-looking. You might not give her a second thought, but you'd look twice.
The movie starts out quite decent, with an intriguing set-up. But the middle part with Mac and Cochrane wandering around NYC and a too-long semi-comedic segment where they're questioning the owners of what they think is the apartment where the party was, almost feel like filler even if it's decently done. Things pick up again for the last third of the movie with a few minor twists. The final reveal however comes almost completely out of left-field, hats off to anyone who saw that one coming. I have no idea if this was also lifted from Woolrich's story, but it's more of a 'hmmm' ending than a real 'wowza' twist. So after the promising start, the movie doesn't quite live up to it afterwards. It also doesn't quite have the dark noir look either, apart from a few spots here and there. But at least it moves along at a fast pace, which is pretty much the main requirement for these types of cheap programmers. It's worthy of a watch if you're into these cheapo B's, it has its charms, but if you're looking for a good Woolrich adaptation, look elsewhere.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Secret Beyond The Door... (1948)

Fritz Lang was one of the big directors of the German Expressionist movement, which would prove to be a major influence on filmmaking in general, and film noir in particular. Movies such as 'Metropolis' (1927) and 'M' (1931) set new standards, especially in visual aesthetics. So it's no surprise that when he left Germany and moved to the USA in the mid '30s, he would end up making several films noirs and noir-ish thrillers including 'Ministry Of Fear' (1944) and 'The Big Heat' (1953).

In 1941, sultry Joan Bennett starred in his espionage thriller 'Man Hunt', the first of 4 collaborations. After their 2nd movie together, 1944's 'The Woman In The Window', they formed a production company, Diana Productions, named after her oldest daughter. The third party in this company was Joan's husband and successful independent movie producer Walter Wanger. The company's first movie was the classic noir 'Scarlet Street' from 1945, followed in 1948 by 'Secret Beyond The Door...', both directed by Fritz Lang and starring Joan Bennett. 'Secret Beyond The Door...' was based on the story 'Museum Piece No. 13' by Rufus King from 1946, and adapted into a screenplay by Silvia Richards ('Possessed'). Cinematography was handled by Stanley Cortez ('The Night Of The Hunter') and the dramatic score was composed by Miklós Rózsa ('The Killers').
Felicitous \fi-ˈli-sə-təs\
  1. well chosen or suited to the circumstances
  2. pleasing and fortunate
In 'Secret Beyond The Door...', Joan plays wealthy socialite Celia Barrett, who is off on a vacation to Mexico, her final fling before settling down. There she meets mysterious architect Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave), and within days the two are married. However, Mark cuts short their honeymoon when he has to leave unexpectedly, leaving Celia to go to his mansion by herself. There she finds out she doesn't really know all that much about Mark or his past. Mark's overly protective sister Caroline (Anne Revere) meets her at the train station, but she is only the first of many surprises for Celia, and the only happy one. Mark is broke, and maybe out for her money. And that's only the beginning...

It turns out Mark is a widower with a son, David (Mark Dennis) who despises him and blames him for his mother's death. Then there's Mark's secretary Miss Robey (Barbara O'Neill) who always covers part of her face due to a burn scar. And the 'felicitous' rooms Mark collects that he told Celia about, turn out to be rooms showcasing rooms where historic murders took place. Not quite what Celia assumed... And there's one murder room that Mark keeps locked at all time, one she's not allowed to enter, ever...

The movie looks stunning, with exquisitely atmospheric cinematography and sets. If the plot might seem quirky and silly, and it certainly does at times when you are watching this, there are still the visuals to draw you in. The sets, the lighting, the direction, everything is top-notch. And Fritz Lang's Expressionist past even makes an appearance in the form of a strange dream-sequence where Mark is put on trial, with himself as the prosecutor as well as the accused, and the judge and jury all obscured by shadows. It is a very odd scene, but it helps in conveying Mark's unstable mental state of mind, as well as a more terrifying idea for the viewer, that of Celia's murder.

The cast does well for the most part. The gorgeous Joan Bennett usually played the savvy femme fatale in her darker/noir movies, so this more passive and subdued part feels different. But she pulls it off well, aided by her very strong voice-over narration, which is often more whispered than spoken and adds a very spooky mood to the movie. It also helps in establishing Celia's internal insecurity and tendency to overthink things. The always dependable Anne Revere ('Fallen Angel', 'Body And Soul') is sympathetic but somehow secretive as Caroline, and Barbara O'Neil ('Whirlpool', 'Angel Face') is just plain creepy as Miss Robey who has a few secrets hidden behind her scarf.
- My main thesis is that the way a place is built determines what happens in it. [..] Certain rooms cause violence, even murders.
- Mark, my sweet lamb, you're tetched in the head.
- Yeah, maybe I am.
The major letdowns acting-wise are Michael Redgrave as Mark and Mark Dennis as his son David. We'll let Mark Dennis off the hook because he was only 14/15 at the time of shooting and his character is rather silly. But Michael Redgrave is simply miscast in my opinion. The romance between him and Celia/Joan Bennett lacks chemistry of any sort, and he just never exhibits the dark emotional undercurrents that his character has. Redgrave was far from a bad actor, but he was just not the right choice here.

Director Fritz Lang and cinematographer Stanley Cortez fill the movie with beautiful dark shadows and striking shots, accentuated effectively by Rózsa's melodramatic score. The movie's tension builds up nicely throughout into a climactic finale. Unfortunately the final resolution is let down a bit by the old fashioned approach to psychoanalysis and who's to blame (hint: it's always the mother), but it's a minor gripe really. If you are willing to deal with the somewhat wacky ensemble gathered in the Lamphere mansion, a miscast male lead, and a plot that seems to borrow several elements from better movies (like 'Rebecca'), it's a pleasant viewing experience.

'Secret Beyond The Door...' was a commercial failure however, which together with marital issues (eventually leading to Wanger shooting Bennett's agent, and lover, a few years later) and a strained working relationship between Lang and Bennett, led to the end of Diana Productions, after only 2 motion pictures. Both Lang and Bennett later considered this movie a minor, even forgettable, effort but do not let that detract you from this movie. It's an entertaining movie that can even be watched purely for its visuals. An uneven movie, but worth checking out.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

New York Confidential (1955)

Between 1948 and 1952, a series of books with titles like 'New York: Confidential!' and 'Washington: Confidential!' were published; all written by journalist Jack Lait and newspaper columnist Lee Mortimer. These books described the seedy and criminal underbellies of various US cities in a pulpy and sensationalist manner, even if they were based on factual data and accounts. The series was quite popular, no doubt helped by the early 50s Kefauver Committee's investigation into organized crime and subsequent hearings of infamous mobsters. The hearings, and in turn the books, inspired numerous movies and TV and radio serials, including 1955's film noir 'New York Confidential'. The latter serving as inspiration for a TV series of the same name which aired 1 season in 1959.

Despite sharing a title with one of the Lait & Mortimer books, 'New York Confidential' the film was only 'suggested by' the books. The screenplay was written by Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene, who worked together on a number of movies, including several other noirs such as 'D.O.A.', 'The Thief' and 'Wicked Woman'. They often wrote the screenplay together with Rouse then directing and Greene producing the film, as is the case here. Eddie Fitzgerald did the cinematography, having already worked with Rouse & Greene on 'Wicked Woman'. Joseph Mullendore wrote his first score for this movie. He then quickly moved on to scoring TV series like 'The Dick Powell Show' and 'Burke's Law'.

'New York Confidential' starts out in the semi-documentary style that was popular in the late 40s to mid 50s, where government agents would typically infiltrate some sort of criminal outfit to bust it from the inside. In these movies a voice-over usually starts the movie, explaining the racket that would be all but obliterated by the end of the movie. But after such an intro, 'New York Confidential' quickly shifts, focusing solely on the criminals. There is no infiltrator, no government agency, secretly fighting this organization. The main concern of the film is captured in one quote which would have served far better as the tagline instead of the essay sprawled on the poster seen above:
The organization comes first
The organization is split up into territories, with a boss in every major city, each running their own territory. The New York boss is Charlie Lupo (Broderick Crawford), who is about to make a multi-million dollar deal. To carry it out he needs the support of corrupt politicians and lobbyists. What he does not need is publicity, which is exactly what he's getting when a local mobster shoots one of his men as well as some innocent bystanders. The law of the street demands he retaliate, so Lupo 'borrows' up and coming hitman Nick Magellan (Richard Conte) from the Chicago territory to try and keep his involvement out of the public and police eye. Magellan deals with the manner swiftly and deadly. Lupo is impressed, and arranges for Magellan to come work for him permanently.
In the end, the deal still goes sour due to a corrupt lobbyist talking a bit too freely in an interview. All the territory bosses gather and vote unanimously to bump off the guy. Lupo is chosen to take care of it. He orders his heavy, Wendler (Mike Mazurki), and his crew to make the hit. However, a cleaning lady messes things up and the men have to flee the scene, shooting a cop in the process. Lupo now has to do some major damage control before things really blow up in his face and he orders Magellan to get rid of Wendler and his men. Magellan kills two of them, but Wendler is on to Lupo and tries to cut a deal with the authorities to save his own skin. This could bring down the entire syndicate and Lupo is held responsible... The other bosses want blood and once again Magellan is asked to draw it for them.

In a way, 'New York Confidential' shows a more realistic version of the large crime syndicates than was common for the time. It would be impossible for a single man, or even a small team of people, to bring down this kind of organization, so this does not happen here, with the organization still firmly in its place at the end of the movie. What it shows, is how these outfits take care of their internal problems. Somebody wants to sell out, he dies, no matter how high up in the organisation he is. Loyalty to the organization outweighs everything. But that also means there's danger around every corner, and it comes in many disguises. The movie has elements of the 30s gangster movies as well as more modern movies like 'The Godfather' and 'Scarface' (both the 30s version and the more famous 80s version), by focusing only on the gritty, kill-or-be-killed lifestyle of the gangsters.
A meeting... From every territory in the country they answer the summons. Names you seldom hear, faces you rarely see. The high court of organized crime, sitting in judgement. A judgement which is final, from which there is no appeal.
Richard Conte and Broderick Crawford play the two main characters in this movie, and they're both excellent. Crawford's Lupo is struggling with his health, clearly brought on by his immense responsibilities towards the organization, and certainly not helped by his temper, calling people pigs left and right, even slapping his daughter Kathy (Anne Bancroft) violently in a burst of outrage. He takes a shine to Conte's Magellan however, who is the son of someone he used to work with. He also sees in Magellan someone unlike his usual henchmen, smart, cunning, calculated and above all, extremely loyal.

Crawford is great here, throwing around his weight, both literally and figuratively, with ease and command. At times he speaks so fast you're left wondering if the movie is playing at the right speed. Conte is his usual intense self, restrained and graceful but with a malevolent menace brooding in his pitch-black eyes. Magellan experiences some inner conflict when he starts to have feelings for Kathy, but his loyalty to the organization and to Charlie prevent him from doing anything about it, and Conte manages to make this inner conflict seem real. Conte also played a criminal in the classic 1955 film 'The Big Combo', but with a much more violent and volatile personality. And he pulls off both characters so well. Seeing Conte in a noir is always a treat.

Bancroft's part is small, too small. Her Kathy loathes what her father does and what he stands for, and she despises Magellan for it as well; despite the obvious attraction between them. I wish more time had been given to her character, because Anne Bancroft is pretty good here, the way she both despises and is attracted to Magellan simultaneously is done really well. She makes only a few appearances throughout the movie, but her character adds depth to it, including a rather shocking and surprising appearance near the end, which had been alluded to earlier on. The other two female characters that inhabit the film are Mama Lupo (Celia Lovsky) who Charlie Lupo clings on to far too much, and Iris (Marilyn Maxwell), his girlfriend. I didn't much care for Mama Lupo, but Iris's character has more depth to it, played well by Maxwell. Iris comes off as a femme fatale in the movie until the final part where she shows she genuinely cares about Lupo. She may be a gold digger, and she certainly acts like it, but she's also human.

The movie is riddled with familiar faces, character actors that appeared in dozens of 40s & 50s movies, credited and uncredited. From Mike Mazurki ('Murder, My Sweet', 'Night And The City') to Nestor Paiva ('Alias Nick Beal', 'Rope Of Sand') to J. Carroll Naish ('Humoresque', 'Clash By Night'). More often than not as each new face appears you're left thinking 'Where have I seen this guy before?'

Visually the movie does not stand out and is shot in the flat style that was common in 50s noirs ('The Big Combo' was a notable exception). Still, the characters and the story are noir. Try and find a nice guy in this one. You'll come up empty handed. People get killed, left, right and center. And the people ordering the hits and executing them are the main characters here. Sure, Magellan has a soft spot for Lupo's daughter, and every noir-head has a soft spot for Richard Conte, but he's not sympathetic. His boss tells him someone has to die, he makes it happen. He doesn't question it, he simply does it. No matter what choices the characters make, they cannot control what happens to them, once the wheels are set in motion with the drive-by shooting of Lupo's guy, it's all just another ride on the downward spiral of doom.

There are some flaws in this one. It was shot on a tight budget, so most scenes take place on sets, making it feel static and even slow at times. It also has the unimaginative flat 50s look I mentioned before, I am not a fan. And to top it off there are a few plotholes that make little sense other than putting the right person, in the right place, at the right time. But oh well, nothing new. I'd still say not to pass up on this one. It not only has a great cast with equally great performances, but is also one of the bleaker noirs with some great assassination scenes to boot. Not a classic, but nowhere near a dud either...


Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Mask Of Dimitrios (1944)

Starting with the classic 'The Maltese Falcon', between 1941 and 1946 Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre appeared together in 10 movies, most of them a thriller of some sort. Due to their physical appearances this made them, for those few years at least, almost seem like the Laurel and Hardy of dark cinema. In 1944 they appeared together in 'The Mask Of Dimitrios', a noir spy thriller based on an Eric Ambler novel.

The titular Dimitrios is Dimitrios Makropoulos, an infamous jack-of-all-trades criminal mastermind whose dead body washes ashore near Istanbul, Turkey. Dutch detective writer Cornelius Leyden (Lorre) is in Istanbul at that time and police official colonel Haki (Kurt Katch), an avid reader of detective novels, is eager to tell Leyden about Dimitrios, and even shows him the body before its cremation. Haki explains that Dimitrios managed to escape the law for a long time, so much so that the only way they know the body is Dimitrios is because of a name tag and papers found in its clothes. Leyden's interest in this mysterious character is piqued, he sees a possible angle for a new novel. He starts to retrace the history of Dimitrios by talking to people who knew Dimitrios, such as nightclub owner Irana (Faye Emerson) and wealthy socialite Grudek (Vincent Francen), while travelling all over Europe following leads and clues. Along the way he comes into contact with a Mr. Peters (Greenstreet), who is also interested in Dimitrios, but for reasons shrouded in mystery. Leyden is puzzled by the elusive Dimitrios as well as Mr. Peters, but also intrigued, and before he knows it he is in Paris where Mr. Peters finally explains his intentions, which involves one million francs, blackmail and Dimitrios...
To me the most important thing to know about an assassination is not who fired the shot, but who paid for the bullet.
In typical noir fashion, the movie has a number of flashbacks, in which people recount their memories of Dimitrios, played by Zachary Scott. Through these flashbacks Leyden, and the viewer, gets a better idea of Dimitrios and his cunning, but dangerous and lethal, intellect. He is both charming and ruthless, suave and threatening, but always calculated and one step ahead of everybody else. Whether it involves, murder, smuggling drugs or blackmail, and being hired as a spy to steal military plans for a European country, Dimitrios rises to the occasion every single time. As long as there is a profit to be made.

The movie is a fairly faithful adaptation of Eric Ambler's spy novel 'A Coffin For Dimitrios' from 1939, the movie's title taken from the title of a chapter in the book. I read the book recently and it is a clever and fun read. Prolific pulp author Frank Gruber took a few liberties to turn the source material into a slightly more movie-like screenplay, but nothing that really alters the plot. Most notably the name and nationality of its protagonist was changed from the British Charles Latimer to the Dutch Cornelius Leyden, possibly because of Peter Lorre's accent which nobody can mistake for a British one. Not that he has a Dutch accent either, but I digress. The other big difference, but still not really changing the flow of the movie, is the story recounted by Grudek (Victor Francen). In the novel Latimer learns of this story from a letter sent by Marukakis, who is one of the first people Latimer/Leyden meets on his journey. In the novel Grudek is only addressed as G., a masterspy who employs Dimitrios to steal some military plans. The contents of this letter takes up an entire chapter in the book. Probably in an effort to make it more cinematic, this story is told by Grudek when Leyden visits him (Latimer never meets G. in the novel). But the story, both in the novel and in the book, plays out almost the same, except the roles of Grudek/G. and Dimitrios in it are reversed. While it may sound like a big change, in actuality it serves the exact same purpose in both cases without changing the course of the plot, while making Dimitrios seem like an even more cunning criminal in the movie. As a small note of interest, Colonel Haki also makes an appearance in the Eric Ambler novel 'Journey Into Fear' from 1940, which was turned into a movie in 1943, where he is played by none other than Orson Welles.

Zachary Scott made his film debut in this movie, and he is perfectly cast with his unique lizard-like look that made him perfect for this role. He would become a household name a year later in the classic noir 'Mildred Pierce' where his slimy traits are also used to maximum effect. He is solid here, and plays all sides of Dimitrios's character to a tee, making him really seem like an almost superhuman villain, but who still ends up a mere mortal in his final moments. He would appear in several more noirs, including 1950's 'Guilty Bystander' where he played opposite Faye Emerson again, who is quite the cheap-looking nightclub owner here. But despite being billed third, her role is remarkably small and one-dimensional.

Peter Lorre, oddly enough billed fourth despite being the movie's protagonist and central character, and Sydney Greenstreet are both simply great here. The two had a lot of chemistry together and this is exploited to the fullest here. Both actors also had distinct ways of speaking that, combined with their non-average physical appearances, made them in a sense character actors rather than leading actors, despite both being very good at their trade. Lorre plays Leyden the way Latimer is described in the book, as someone who might know how to write about a murder but who is quite naive when it comes to criminal reality. Conversely, Greenstreet embodied Mr. Peters perfectly with a tone of voice and glint in his eye that always makes everything he says seem somehow suspect.
Murder, treason, and betrayal... that's the finishing touch.
Jean Negulesco directed the movie, which was his first of several noirs, which also included 'Three Strangers', again with Lorre and Greenstreet, and 'Nobody Lives Forever', both from 1946. For all these movies, Arthur Edeson was behind the camera. Edeson had already worked as a cinematographer with Lorre and Greenstreet on the classics-among-classics 'The Maltese Falcon' and 'Casablanca', as did composer Adolph Deutsch. They all deliver solid work here, turning an intriguing but fairly static and dialogue-heavy novel/screenplay into a brisk-moving and exciting thriller which feels more action-filled than it really is, and it has some beautifully shot scenes as well. It is a really good and fun movie that will no doubt please any lover of film noir and black & white spy/crime thrillers in general. Recommended, as is the novel!


Notice how in the trailer Lorre and Greenstreet are referred to as 'The Little Man' and 'The Fat Man'.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Lady In The Lake (1947)

Raymond Chandler's iconic private eye Philip Marlowe has been portrayed by many actors. Humphrey Bogart in 'The Big Sleep' (1946), Dick Powell in 'Murder, My Sweet' (1944) and Robert Mitchum in 1978's remake of 'The Big Sleep' come to mind. Robert Montgomery's take on Philip Marlowe in 1947's 'Lady In The Lake' might not be as well-known as the ones above, but in many ways his portrayal of the character, and the movie as a whole is the most unique. The most unique film noir you'll ever watch.

Robert Montgomery, who both directed this movie and played the lead, decided to take a radically different approach to Chandler's novel of the same name; a novel first published in 1943, but which itself was based on several earlier short stories, including one also entitled 'Lady In The Lake'. MGM got Chandler to write a screenplay for it, but Steve Fisher (author of 'I Wake Up Screaming') also wrote one, possibly at Montgomery's request, which is what ended up being used. One of the ways the screenplay strays from the original is in turning several smaller characters into much more important ones.
You'll see it just as I saw it. You'll meet the people, you'll find the clues... And maybe you'll solve it quick, and maybe you won't.
As with another Chandler novel/adaptation, 'The Big Sleep,' the plot is full of turns and twists and no one is who they appear to be. Phillip Marlowe (yes, with 2 l's) is trying to get some extra money by submitting a story to a pulp magazine. He's invited to the publisher's office to discuss terms, meeting with Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter). There, she persuades him to look into the disappearance of her boss's wife, Chrystal Kingsby. Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames), the boss, is amidst divorce proceedings and needs his wife present to sign documents. Marlowe accepts and before he knows it he's in over his head in a big way. The twisting plot where people and things are not what they seem, and a new clue means nothing is not important. Like all good noirs with labyrinthian plots, think 'The Big Sleep,' it's all about slipping into the right mood and feeling the atmosphere, the psychological make-up of the characters and what drives them, discovering their real motives, hearing the crackling dialog. 'Lady In The Lake' has it all, in spades.

The movie plays out in one long flashback, told from the perspective of Marlowe. In the most literal way, the entire movie, save for a few short scenes where Marlowe addresses the viewer directly to summarize details, is seen through his eyes. Marlowe himself is never seen except reflected in mirrors. This wasn't the first movie to use the subjective camera point of view but it most likely is the first major studio movie to use it as such. Not even 'Dark Passage,' another noir released a year before, and famous for using this technique, used it to this extent. As Marlowe/Robert Montgomery explains at the start of the movie, this gives the viewer a chance to see the case through his eyes, to see if they can crack the case and pick up on the same clues that Marlowe had to go on. An interesting idea, but it failed to connect with audiences at the time. It is also one of several things that are commonly seen as negative about this movie in noir circles.

Using this technique also meant that the actors who did appear in front of the camera needed to be comfortable looking directly into the lens. This was no problem for Audrey Totter ('Tension', 'The Set-Up') whose Adrienne Fromsett is the real star player of the movie, who drives the plot forward. Totter seems completely at ease with this unusual way of acting and gives an amazing performance. With her expressive face and big eyes, she makes use of it all to great effect. The way she flirts with and talks to the camera is incredible. She's a natural and her take on this role is one of the reasons she's one of my favorite ladies of noir. The other main female character, played by Jayne Meadows ('Song Of The Thin Man', 'Undercurrent'), also gives a strong performance. She starts out as Mrs.Fallbrook, Lavery's supposed landlady, but as the movie progresses she turns out to be somebody else, complete with different personalities and manners of speaking. Both Totter's and Meadows' characters are minor and relatively irrelevant in the original novel, but are given a much more important role in this adaptation. To some this deviation from the original, is a source of criticism.
We have a nasty little motto around here: "Every man has his price."
Robert Montgomery plays Marlowe as cynically and verbally abusive as can be. It also doesn't help that you hardly ever see him, leaving little ambiguity about his words. This is a Marlowe that isn't likable, he's mean, never a nice thing to say, and seems to generally dislike people and life. Add that to the list of gripes about this movie too. Of all the actors in this movie, Lloyd Nolan ('The Street With No Name', 'The House On 92nd Street') seemed the least comfortable addressing the camera directly; he is fidgety at times and looks away from the lens too often. But all in all, they both do an admirable job, considering they had to unlearn some common acting lessons such as no looking straight into the camera.

There's a few other ways in which this movie stands out: it uses a lot of long takes, even if there are quite a few cheat-cuts to make it seem like it's an even longer continuous take. Because the movie has very little action, it is full of dialogues. There are many scenes in which an actor is essentially doing a monologue facing the lens with Montgomery/Marlowe responding off-camera. There's also no real soundtrack, apart from a choir providing occasional, rather eery, background music in theme with the Christmas season the movie takes place in. It's certainly a different viewing experience.

There are several scenes where the first person view really works in ways that would be much harder to accomplish if filmed the traditional way. The scene where Marlowe finds Lavery's dead body in the shower cabin is incredibly creepy and quite graphic considering the era, with the choir music adding to the suspense and tension. Later on, when Marlowe's car is pushed off the road and he is stumbling out, he crawls on hands and knees to a phone booth, badly hurt and barely conscious, with the camera going in and out of focus. This crawling alone takes over a minute and all that is shown during this time are his hands as he slowly moves. It's a very effective way of showing his condition without showing Marlowe himself.
- Stop getting involved in other people's murders. Why be a private detective at all?
- Why eat? You only get hungry again.
Aesthetically, the movie does not have the noir look but everything else about it: the story, the characters, the twists and turns, the ambiguity, the psychology and morality, it's all noir. While it may not work for some, the first person view can really draw you in, giving it a different kind of noir aesthetic that relies a lot more on combining what you see with the atmosphere of the scene rather than on chiaroscuro lighting.

There are other unusual touches to the movie, including a Christmas-y credit roll making it seem as if you were watching something like 'It's A Wonderful Life', until it ends with the image of a gun. It also includes a credit for Crystal Kingsby, who is supposedly played by Ellay Mort. Except she never appears in the movie, it's a phony credit, Ellay Mort when spoken out loud means 'she is dead' in French. There are even scenes where the viewer/Marlowe is on the phone and, as one tends to do whilst on the phone, looking at nothing in particular. And so, during the entire conversation you're staring at a piece of furniture! Also watch out for some funny phone calls.

As you may have gathered, there is a decently long list of gripes that are commonly brought up about this movie. As you may also have gathered, I don't agree with any of them. I love it! What others see as working against it, I see the other way around. Robert Montgomery clearly went out on a limb with this movie, and I applaud him for it. The only other noir that he directed and starred in, 'Ride The Pink Horse', is also rather atypical. The man simply didn't want to walk the beaten path, and that is never a bad thing. 'Lady In The Lake' is a movie I can watch over and over again. It's a one-of-a-kind noir experience. Most hate it, some love it, like I do.

Besides, what's not to love about a movie where you're the person being kissed by Audrey Totter?!


Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Set-Up (1949)

A while ago a friend asked me about boxing and film noir. My initial response was that it didn't really have a connection outside of a few noirs like 'Body And Soul' and 'Champion'. However, the more I thought about it, the more movies kept popping up. Noirs that feature (ex-)boxers as a main character such as 'Killer's Kiss', 'The Killers' and '99 River Street', or noirs that revolve around the boxing ring such as Bogart's last movie, 'The Harder They Fall'. In terms of noirs whose main focus is boxing, 1949's 'The Set-Up' seems to garner less attention and acclaim than the aforementioned 'Body And Soul' and 'Champion', but it is a real classic in my book.

'The Set-Up' has a pretty basic plot with no real surprises, but it still manages to pack a punch and hide a few tricks up its sleeve. Bill 'Stoker' Thompson (Robert Ryan) is a boxer with a 20-year career who's well past his prime. His latest fight is against up-and-coming talent Tiger Nelson (Hal Baylor). Local promotor and gambler Little Boy (Alan Baxter) wants Nelson to win, and has paid off Stoker's manager Tiny (George Tobias) and trainer Red (Percy Helton) to have Stoker take a dive in the 3rd round. But Tiny doesn't want to tell this to Stoker as he figures Nelson will win easily anyways, so he won't have to pay Stoker his share. Stoker however feels he can take this new kid on the block. All it takes is one shot...

It is good to remember that this movie is from 1949, movies like 'Raging Bull' and 'Rocky' hadn't been made yet. Yes, Stoker does win, that should not come as a real surprise, but no, this does not mean there's a happy ending. The arena is a seedy place, the fights are for handouts, not for titles. The audience will cheer on whoever's got the upper hand in a fight, all they care about is getting their money's worth in blood, sweat and tears. After Stoker wins, the hall clears out instantly, there are no celebrations, no heroics. Hell, Stoker's fight isn't even the main bout of the evening, the main fight's pushed to an earlier spot due to the local radio station's schedule. Only the fighters themselves care, and Little Boy. Little Boy cares... It's not even about Stoker beating Tiger Nelson, it's about Stoker not doing what he's told, even if nobody told him what to do. Stoker has no control over his fate and doesn't realize it, and when he finally does, he still makes the wrong choice. That's noir.
Stoker! Stoker! Kill him! Kill him!
The main trick played on the audience is that the movie takes place in real time. Lasting 72 minutes, the whole story plays out from roughly 9.10pm to 10.22pm. This was, and still is, a rarely used device, but it works remarkably well here. The movie starts out before the fight, alternating between the locker room and Julie (Audrey Totter), Stoker's wife, then shows the fight itself, and finally it focuses on the aftermath. And unlike most boxing movies where the underdog beats all the odds and wins, Stoker's win will also prove to be his undoing.

The scenes in the lockerroom are magnificent, and have a very touching side to them. Even though most of the fighters that night are either washed up like Stoker, or just starting out, they all share the same dreams of becoming a world champion. But they're not alike, all fighters have distinct personalities in this movie. If Stoker is washed up, 'Gunboat' Thompson (David Clarke) is all dried up with too many losses behind his name to keep count of. He keeps talking about Frankie Manilla, a fighter who had a losing streak of 21 losses but still managed to become middleweight world-champion. When Gunboat is carried back into the lockerroom all beat up after yet another loss, the doctor checks up on him and asks him who he is. Gunboat mumbles 'Frankie Manilla. I am Frankie Manilla.' It's a very intense and profound moment that explains this movie better than anything else. But the lockerroom scenes also show the comradery between the fighters, how everybody's on equal footing. Nobody pays any attention to fellow boxer Luther Hawkins's skin color inside the lockerroom, played by James Edwards, until his manager comes to pick him up for his fight and calls him 'boy'.

On the other end of the first act of the movie is Julie's story, played by one of the true dames of noir, Audrey Totter. In this movie however, she's anything but a femme fatale, but a demure and loving wife who's worried about her husband's health. She can't even bear to see him fight anymore, and so she wanders around the aptly named Paradise City before and during the fight. There is a great scene on an overpass overlooking the traffic where Totter shows she could really act with her face, showing her inner struggles. But all in all, her role is fairly wasted, and Totter is not the right actress for this kind of part, some of the lines she speaks come out in an over-the-top melodramatic kind of way, as if she didn't really know how to play Julie. It's a shame because Totter is one of my favorite ladies of noir.

Robert Ryan however was made to play these kinds of complex, world-weary, tortured souls. His performance here is truly great. You can see in his eyes and his body that he knows he's over and done with, that he's reached the end of his career, but you can also see that he still has his dreams, that he truly believes he can win against Tiger Nelson and that he's only one fight away from a shot at the title. The poem the movie was based on, Joseph Moncure March's 'The Set-Up' was about a black boxer, but according to director Robert Wise there was no black actor under contract with RKO at the time who fit the boxer profile. Ryan had been a heavyweight champion during his college years and was still in great shape (so great in fact that he had to really work to fight with a scrappy, stumbling style that an over-the-hill fighter like Stoker Thompson would have), so he was the natural choice for the part.
There's no percentage in smartening up a chump.
The fight, which takes up roughly 20+ minutes of the movie, is shown from start to finish, every second of it, and it's quite the slugfest. Johnny Indrisano was hired as a consultant for the fight, a retired pro-boxer. It also didn't hurt that not just Ryan but also Hal Baylor (still working under his first acting name here, Hal Fieberling) had extensive boxing experience. Baylor was a recently retired pro-boxer with a 15-8-2 career (and close to 60 amateur fights). All that experience makes the fight painful to watch because they really do slug it out. Because of them really going for it with constant barrages of hits, the fight does become unrealistic as well, because in reality somebody would've gone down way quicker. But that minor quibble aside, it's a really gritty and brutal fight to watch.

Robert Wise ('Odds Against Tomorrow', but also 'The Sound Of Music'!) directed the movie, which was based on a screenplay by Art Cohn, based on the aforementioned poem. Milton Krasner ('No Way Out', 'House Of Strangers') did the cinematography which really shines during the third part of the movie with the aftermath of the fight, which sees Stoker's last shred of a boxing career destroyed by Little Boy and, ironically, Tiger Nelson. There is no music in the movie except for some music being played in a penny-arcade and a club next to the arena, which adds to the overall grittiness of the movie. All in all 'The Set-Up' stands out in the boxing movie pantheon for more than one reason, and should not be overlooked.


Friday, May 9, 2014

I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

1941 was an important year for film noir. It is often seen as the year film noir came to life, where a lot of things like German expressionism, the gangster movies of the 30s, a growing sense of disillusionment and fear due to World War II, and other factors, came together in a much darker, grittier and bleaker style of movie, which we now call film noir. 1941's 'The Maltese Falcon' is commonly seen as the first prime example of this new style, and it is indeed an awesome movie, but visually it is still clearly rooted in the 1930's way of shooting crime movies. If 'The Maltese Falcon' is the first film noir, then surely 'I Wake Up Screaming', which was released only a few months later, can lay claim to being the first film noir that also has the dark, chiaroscuro look so closely associated with the style. And like 'The Maltese Falcon', it also has a pulp novel background. The source novel, also called 'I Wake Up Screaming', was written by Steve Fisher, who might not be as widely remembered as Dashiel Hammett, but who was a prolific writer with over a dozen novels to his name as well as several screenplay credits including 'Lady In The Lake' and 'Dead Reckoning'.

'I Wake Up Screaming' was directed by H. Bruce Humberstone who had directed some of the 30s Charlie Chan movies but never really did any noir after this movie. The cinematographer was Edward Cronjager ('House By The River', 'Desert Fury') who came from a family of cinematographers, including his dad, brother and an uncle. There was no music composed specifically for this movie, but it does use 2 popular tunes, Alfred Newman's theme from 'Street Scene' and Harold Arlen's 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow', more about that later. Steve Fisher's novel was turned into a screenplay by Dwight Taylor ('Conflict', 'Pickup On South Street'), who would also write the screenplay for the 1953 remake 'Vicki'. The movie was originally called 'Hot Spot', for marketing reasons, the studio thought would better attract the audience that would go watch it for its lead actors, Victor Mature and Betty Grable. But before the movie was released, and after a lot of promotional material had already been made using the 'Hot Spot' title, the cast and crew convinced Fox to go with 'I Wake Up Screaming' instead.
'I'll follow you into your grave. I'll write my name on your tombstone.'
Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) is a sports promoter in New York City. One evening he spots a beautiful waitress, Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis), and decides she's to be his next new pet project. He introduces her to his friends and the socialites of NYC and in no time Vicky is the talk of the town. Vicky loves her new life, but her sister Jill (Betty Grable) whom she shares an apartment with, is less enamored and has her reservations about Frankie's intentions. But Frankie also sees things go sour when Vicky announces she's been invited to do a screentest and plans to move to Hollywood, all without Frankie's knowledge. Soon after this announcement, Jill comes home to find Frankie crouching over Vicky's dead, murdered, body. Frankie denies everything of course, but police detective Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) doesn't believe him. Even after another suspect pops up, the apartment building's switchboard operator Harry Williams (Elisha Cook Jr.), who's not been seen or heard off again since the murder, Cornell keeps hounding Frankie. He even sneaks into his bedroom at night, hoping Frankie might talk in his sleep and subconsciously mention something incriminating. Things don't get any easier when Harry returns to work, he'd only been out of town visiting his parents. Jill, who's initial apprehension towards Frankie had turned into a romantic interest, doesn't believe Frankie did it and together they set out to find the real killer, still with Cornell trying to pin the murder on Frankie. And there's also an angry letter Frankie wrote to Vicky after she told him about Hollywood, which could easily be read as a threat, which Jill is hiding in her apartment, just the kind of thing Cornell needs to put Frankie away.

The first third of the movie is told using flashbacks, by both Frankie and Jill, mostly set up during interrogation scenes at the police station. These interrogation scenes, and the usage of flashbacks, are a great example of how this movie is one of the earliest examples of movie that fit right into the classic noir period. Very chiaroscuro lighting, with key figures lurking in the shadows. Even tho Cornell is present in these scenes, it is only in the corner of the image or inside a dark shadow, so only on a rewatch is it clear who/where he is in these scenes. After about 20 minutes his face is revealed, which is also the first twist in the movie, as Jill recognizes Cornell as the creepy man she saw watching Vicky from outside the diner where Vicky was working, before Vicky met Frankie. Cornell does turn out to be obsessed with Vicky, and he has an alterior motive for trying to pin the murder on Frankie.

Obsession, like many noirs, is also this movie's underlying theme. Vicky's obsession with making it big, which can also be seen as a slight commentary on 'stardom'. Pretty much all men in the movie obsess over Vicky in one way or another. Frankie's job as a promoter requires a decent of level of obsession from the audience he's catering to, whether it's sports fans or people looking for the next beautiful face. There's also Frankie & Jill's obsession with finding Vicky's killer. But too much obsessing over something or somebody usually doesn't lead to a lot of good, and it doesn't here either. In one way or another, most of the main characters in this movie corrupt themselves for an obsession.
'Go ahead, you're an actor. Pretend you're going to your execution.'
Betty Grable wasn't yet the huge star she would become soon afterwards, but her role as Jill Lynn was already quite a departure for her, it's not like she was an unknown actress, far from it. She played comparatively few dramatic roles in her career, and played mostly in musicals and comedies. She doesn't do too bad here, but a noir dame she ain't, she's far too wholesome (a bit like Deanna Durbin in her noir-ish movies). Carole Landis on the other hand does have the look and attitude of a noir femme fatale here, but her part is far too small and one-dimensional to really do much with it here. Unfortunately her only other noir credential is 1946's 'Behind Green Lights' and of course her life ended rather abruptly when she committed suicide in 1948.

Landis was re-united for this movie with her co-star from 1940's 'One Million B.C.', Victor Mature ('Kiss Of Death', 'Violent Saturday'). Mature had a very distinct look that was his strongest asset, he was the first to admit he wasn't much of an actor, famously claiming his movies proved he wasn't an actor. He does a solid job here tho, even if he does tend to over-act a tad bit here and there, I especially enjoyed his performances during the more tension-filled scenes. What Mature lacked in natural acting ability, Laird Cregar ('This Gun For Hire', 'Hangover Square') had in abundance. He turns Ed Cornell into a creepy ominous character who doesn't need to carry a gun around, as he's too smart, looking down upon everyone, except Vicky Lynn, and who gives Frankie a tiny hand-made noose as a 'present'. The talented Cregar would die even sooner than Landis, in 1944, due to a crash course diet he undertook in order to become a leading man actor.

The movie also has a number of actors appearing in smaller parts who are no stranger to film noir, such as Elisha Cook Jr. (who was shooting 'The Maltese Falcon' at around the same time!) who would become the ultimate noir fall guy, William Gargan ('Behind Green Lights', 'Night Editor') and Allyn Joslyn ('Moonrise').

The movie is pretty strong overall, but it also has some parts that feel out of place. The burgeoning romance between Frankie & Jill is in itself okay, in theory, but it doesn't really work because there are very few sparks flying between Betty Grable and Victor Mature. There is also a scene between them that feels quite out-of-place, and not even because of their lack of romantic chemistry. After taking Jill/Betty out one night, Frankie/Victor tells her he enjoys a late night swim, so they end up in a public indoor pool. This part was clearly meant to show off Betty Grable's famous legs (she wasn't called 'The Girl With The Million Dollar Legs' without a reason) and Victor Mature's fit body (while still smoking inside a public pool!). Thankfully another even more out-of-place scene with Betty Grable singing to a customer at the department store she works at, was cut from the theatrical release of this movie, although it is included as an extra on the Fox Film Noir DVD release of this movie.
'Time's nothing in my life, it is in yours. Each minute's an eternity to a man in your shoes.'
Which brings me to the music. As I mentioned earlier the movie features 2 popular tunes. And feature it does, both songs are repeated throughout the movie, almost ad nauseam. Alfred Newman's theme from 'Street Scene', the 1931 movie it was originally composed for, would become Fox's go-to theme for movies set in New York City for much of the 40s and into the 50s and as such is featured in a number of noirs including 'The Dark Corner' and 'Where The Sidewalk Ends' and even Audrey Hepburn's 'How To Marry A Millionaire' from 1953. While I have no problem with 'Street Scene', mainly because it is so familiar due to its usage in films noirs, 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' is much more problematic to me. It's far too sentimental and, dare I say it, boring to belong in this type of movie. It appeared in even more movies and TV series than 'Street Scene' however, still being used in various productions to this day.

Dwight Taylor made quite a few changes in the way the story unfolds, compared to the book. The movie uses flashbacks extensively as mentioned earlier, it takes place in New York City whereas the book is set in Los Angeles and one of the main reveals happens much later in the movie than in the book. Apparently Fox thought so highly of this interpretation, they got Dwight Taylor to re-write his screenplay, placing it back in Los Angeles again but leaving a lot of his other changes intact, in the 1953 remake called 'Vicki'. While I like 'Vicki', this 1941 version is the superior version in almost every way. I prefer Jeanne Crain's Jill over Betty Grable's, other than that this is the one to watch. 'I Wake Up Screaming' is a must-see noir, even if only for its historic value.


Here's the trailer which is pretty unique in that it has no narration and doesn't even show the movie's title. Maybe because the original trailer still had the 'Hot Spot' title mentioned all over, and a new one had to be made in a hurry?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949)

One of the problems with watching obscure b/w B-movies from the lower end of a double bill is that even if you can find a DVD or a source online to watch em, the video & audio quality can be pretty bad. In some cases, the movie isn't all that much better, but it also happens it's a shame there's not a more decent version around. Case in point, 1949's 'Johnny Stool Pigeon' which is a good noir but the seemingly only version of it available online is sourced from what appears to be a VHS recording of a late-night broadcast on the German WDR TV channel. And I've yet to find/see a version of it which doesn't seem to come from the same source. Which is unfortunate, 'Johnny Stool Pigeon' deserves better. I wish I could say this one has the worst video/audio quality of all noirs I've seen so far tho, but that's a whole other can of worms...

The movie was directed by William Castle who is known mostly for his cheap, but effective, horror movies like 'House On Haunted Hill' (1959) and '13 Ghosts' (1960). But he also directed some of the Whistler movies, as well as some noirs, 'When Strangers Marry' (1944) and 'New Orleans Uncensored' (1955). The original story was by Henry Jordan, which was adapted into a screenplay by Robert L. Richards. The cinematography was handled by Maury Gertsman ('The Glass Web', 'Rogues' Regiment'). All music played in the movie was stock music by uncredited composers including according to IMDb Miklós Rózsa ('The Killers', 'Double Indemnity').
You may be an awful tough man with those hoodlums of yours, but to me you're a dime a dozen.
George 'Mort' Morton (Howard Duff) is a young and ambitious federal agent working for the narcotics squad. He's investigating an up and coming international narcotics ring, and is about to arrest one of the lower people in the outfit who the bureau thinks can help them get to the people at the top. However, mere seconds before they can arrest the guy, he's killed by gun-for-hire Joey (Tony Curtis). The only lead they find on the dead body is the name of a Canadian trading company. Morton decides he needs to go undercover and check out this company to get anywhere in this case. He gets Johnny Evans (Dan Duryea), a gangster he put behind bars, out of Alcatraz so he can help him. Evans does not want to be Morton's stool pigeon (explaining the title of the movie) but after seeing his dead wife, who was addicted to drugs and died of an overdose, he reluctantly agrees. Together they go to Vancouver to meet up with crooked businessman William McCandles (Barry Kelley) to see if they can force their way in. McCandles arranges a meeting for them in a resort in the Arizona desert and sends his gun moll Terry Stewart (Shelley Winters) along with them. At the resort they find out the resort's manager, Nick Avery (John McIntire), who prefers dressing up as a cowboy, is the big man behind the drug smuggling operation. As Morton and Evans gain Avery's trust in order to set up a deal, his bodyguard/gun-for-hire Joey recognizes Morton's face, but he can't quite place it... Until he does.

1949's 'Johnny Stool Pigeon' is a relatively obscure entry in the exposé noir field, films noirs that deal with exposing, and always busting, some sort of criminal network or syndicate, usually with a government agent who almost single-handedly brings down the bad guys. Some of these noirs, like 'The House On 92nd Street' (1945), are shot in a documentary-like style, typically with some government official giving an introduction of some sort as well as a quick overview at the end of what happens to those who walk on the wrong side of the tracks. This movie walks the middle ground between a more straight-forward police procedural movie and this documentary-style. It's got most of the docu-noir elements at the very start and end of the movie. There are also a few instances however where a character does a brief monologue during the movie explaining the evils of drugs and the danger of addiction and death when taking drugs, which come off staged and awkward, because they're not aimed directly at the viewer as in more conventional docu-noirs, but at other characters.

The movie's finale is quite exciting and well-executed and includes a plane crashing into a car, which looks really well-done and convincing, even with the bad video quality. I have to say, the movie's budget must have been very modest, given it was clearly intended to be on the bottom end of a double bill, but the production team did wonders with it, they made great use of outdoor scenes and whatever sound stages they used, or more likely re-used, they look good as well.

Howard Duff ('The Naked City', 'Brute Force') is decent here as the young, straight as an arrow agent who thinks he knows it all and that he can crack this case. Also in 1949, Duff would play a very similar role, that of a man going undercover to bust a smuggling gang, in 'Illegal Entry'. Here his character is too focused on the case to really notice that Terry Stewart is taking an interest in him. He also doesn't notice that Johnny Evans has been around the block more than a few times, and can think faster and more creatively than he can. Morton is way too strict and much of a typical 'copper', as Evans likes to call him, to really be a noir anti-hero/protagonist. For that we have to turn to Johnny Evans. The hardened gangster who does have a good side to him, who recognizes that Terry deserves a break and not the same deadly fate his wife did. Dan Duryea is fondly remembered in noir circles for his portrayal of villains and other sorts of slimey characters in movies like 'Criss Cross', 'Ministry Of Fear' and 'The Great Flamarion'. Even when he plays a good guy, there's usually still a dark, twisted edge to his character, and likewise when he plays a bad character, he brings something sympathetic to the table, which is also the case here. His performance is easily the best of the movie for me.
You think you can get me on the outside and I get a taste of it and I go crazy. Well, let me tell you something... I'll rot in this place forever before I'll be a stool pigeon for a copper.
Shelley Winters ('The Night Of The Hunter') also does well with the little she's given. Terry is supposed to be a fairly complex character. She's had a rough life and wants out of McCandles' clutches. She sees Morton as an opportunity to get out and even tells him 'maybe after a while we might even make a go of it.' When he brushes her off she tells him all she really wants is money, because it's the only thing you can count on, and which probably drove her straight into McCandles' arms in the first place. Her character starts out as a potential femme fatale but once the movie settles at the resort she becomes almost a prop, which is a shame. Both Winters and Terry Stewart deserved better.

This was one of the first movies for which Tony Curtis receives credit, still called Anthony Curtis here, after appearing in an uncredited role in 'Criss Cross' the same year (but he was dancing with Yvonne De Carlo in that movie, I'm sure he preferred that over receiving credit!). He's even credited fourth, the first name below the title so to say, which is quite an accomplishment for a non-talking role! Here he plays a mute bodyguard/killer. So he doesn't have to do a lot here besides look intently yet quizical at Howard Duff, trying to recall where he first saw him. His stare definitely has some menace to it tho, which is what matters most for this part, so he does well here. He would of course go on to become a huge movie star, as well as give a superb performance in a classic noir called 'Sweet Smell Of Success'.

The main area where this movie is lacking is in the bland cinematography. The movie doesn't really have the dark, starkly lit look you expect and want from noirs, apart from a few small scenes. For the most part the movie is fairly heavily lit like you would expect a more 'normal' movie to be, and the overly bright washed out video quality doesn't help there either. The stock music is also pretty bland, and because of using work from so many composers (IMDb lists 4 names) there's no real theme or cohesiveness to the music. But as I said earlier, this a good noir, and I stand by that. It's lean and moves at a rapid pace with a 71 minute run-time, with solid performances and a nice story. This movie deserves a nice restoration and re-release on DVD or Blu-ray. It's a movie most noir lovers will enjoy I think, so until that restoration happens, don't pass up on this one based on the crappy video quality and give it a shot. It's worth it!

Oh btw, if anybody can get me these records, that would be awesome, thank you! I am also curious to know if other noirs had similar promo records made for them, and if so, which ones.


Here's the trailer, which is in much better shape than the movie!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Slightly Scarlet (1956)

Only a handful of color noirs were made during the classic noir cycle, which lasted from the early 40s till the late 50s (some would argue there is no such thing as color noir). The most well-known color noirs are 1945's 'Leave Her To Heaven' starring Gene Tierney and 1953's 'Niagara' starring Joseph Cotten and Marilyn Monroe. In 1956, James M. Cain's 1941 novel 'Love's Lovely Counterfeit' became a color noir under the title 'Slightly Scarlet'. Cain of course wrote many novels which became source material for classic noirs, like 'Double Indemnity', 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' and 'Midlred Pierce'. This novel was turned upside down and adapted into a screenplay by Robert Blees. The movie was directed by legendary director Allan Dwan, who had directed close to 400 movies and shorts before this movie, having started his directing career in 1911! Some of his most well-known and remembered movies include 1922's 'Robin Hood' starring Douglas Fairbanks and 1949's 'Sands Of Iwo Jima' starring John Wayne. There's a nice biography on Allan Dwan here with more information on this fascinating director. The cinematography was handled by the noir master himself, John Alton ('The Big Combo', 'The Amazing Mr. X'). The, fairly unremarkable, music was scored by Louis Forbes ('The Crooked Way', 'The Man Who Cheated Himself').
All I can do is give you a gun, if you haven't got guts enough to pull the trigger, I can't help it.
The movie is set in the fictional city of Bay City, where Solly Caspar (Ted de Corsia) is the head of a local mob outfit, but working for a larger syndicate. Ben Grace (John Payne) works for him, and his latest job is to find dirt on rich businessman Frank Jansen (Kent Taylor), who's running for mayor with promises to clean up the city and drive all criminals out of town. He finds it in Dorothy Lyons (Arlene Dahl), the kleptomaniac sister of June Lyons (Rhonda Fleming), Jansen's secretary. However, after Solly humiliates him in front of his men, Grace has had enough and double-crosses Solly. He rats on Solly after Solly kills a large backer in Jansen's campaign, a local newspaper editor, and Solly's ordered by his bosses in the syndicate to skip town. After Jansen wins the election Grace uses his knowledge about Dorothy's kleptomaniac behavior to get June to work on Jansen, so his friend in the police department, Dave Dietz (Frank Gerstle), is promoted to Chief of Police. This way he is able to take over Solly's operations, and through Dietz make sure his new gambling outfit can run untouched by the police. He also makes a play for June, who also falls for him. But Dorothy is not just a kleptomaniac, she's a nymphomaniac as well. And Solly isn't going to stay away forever. Something's gotta give...

The plot revolves around corruption and sexual tension, 2 themes very common to film noir. The movie does not shy away from showing as much of either as it possibly could without running into problem with the production code. There's a scene where Dorothy is lying on a couch, legs wide open, scratching her leg with a back scratcher, when Solly, whom she's never met before, walks in on her unexpectedly. She doesn't flinch or pulls her legs together, but immediately starts to flirt with him. It is so blatantly sexual, it's a surprise it got past the censors. The movie also addresses corruption in a very direct manner through Grace's manipulation of both June to get Dietz into the Chief of Police's chair and then of Dietz to drop charges and look the other way. In some ways, especially in the way sex is used in this movie, the movie could not have been made in the 40s, the sexual tension is far more visual here, even if not acted upon, than in 40s noirs where it is implied more through innuendo. In general I prefer the innuendo approach, with its double-entedres and suggestive dialogue, but it's hard to deny that both Rhonda Fleming and especially Arlene Dahl ooze sex-appeal in this movie.

Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl are at the center of this movie in many ways, and femmes fatales in distinct ways. Almost everybody gravitates towards them in one way or another, intentional or not, but most of all, they are the visual focal points. Both have bright red hair, they were both redheads in real life, and both ooze sex appeal. June/Rhonda in a more sophisticated way, Dorothy/Arlene in a sleazier and more carnal way. June is the older and more moral-appearing sister, but the movie also makes clear she's Jansen's lover. There's no way a secretary like June could afford a large house and a flashy convertible like she does. Dorothy is clearly a nymphomaniac, even if it's never mentioned or even alluded to, besides also being a kleptomaniac. When Caspar gives her a bundle of money, she throws it at his feet because, as she tells him, getting money that way is no fun. Both Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl give great performances here, especially Dahl who could have just let go and be over-the-top and campy but she doesn't. She's definitely out there but not in an outrageous way. Nice piece of trivia: Arlene Dahl is the mother of 80s/90s heart-throb Lorenzo Lamas.
I don't like killing people, I never did. But you're not people, I don't think I'd mind a bit.
In a typical noir storyline, Grace sets himself up to get screwed over one way or another. He thinks he can screw over Solly, take over his outfit and get away with it, but he doesn't realize that the top is where the predators reside. John Payne is good here as Ben Grace, in a typical noir role. Payne had plenty of experience in noir land with movies like 'Kansas City Confidential' and '99 River Street' and he gives a good and gritty performance here, but he lacks the tough guy charisma of someone like, say, Lawrence Tierney. His opponent, Solly Caspar, is played by Ted de Corsia, who also had plenty of experience in noirs ('The Naked City', 'Crime Wave'), typically as the heavy. De Corsia excelled at these kinds of roles, and even tho this is not really his best performance, he's his usual solid self here especially in the second half of the movie.

Aside from Fleming and Dahl, John Alton's cinematography is the stand-out aspect of this movie. Visually, this movie is not just pure eye-candy with its lush and lavish use of bright colors and almost kitsch interiors, it is also pure noir with the way Alton handles shadows. Alton was a master at noir chiaroscuro cinematography and 'painting with light' as he called it (which was also the title of a highly influential book on cinematography that he wrote), and here he also shows how to apply it to a technicolor movie. His shadows are deep and rich and almost characters in themselves, as in all his black & white noirs. He lights June's living room and Solly's beach house in a bright manner, but Solly's mansion has rooms that are ominously dark even with the lights on. People move from bright spot to bright spot in it, disappearing almost in the shadows inbetween. Combine this with the brightly colored carpets and furniture, in all interior sets, it makes for a very unique viewing experience. Apparently the movie was also released in a black & white print, but I have to say, I can't see how it would improve the movie, a large part of the movie's appeal is the almost crazy color palette mixed with Alton's shadows.

The movie is not without its flaws however. There's an unintentional comedic element in Grace's car, which is missing its windshield for most of the movie. Also the doors in Solly's beachhouse that lead to the balcony, clearly have no glass panels. I imagine budget costs, and an accidentally smashed windshield might have something to do with this, but it does look a bit silly. I also found the Frank Jansen character too flat in this movie, and underused. His part almost disappears in the second half of the movie. And the soft, soap opera like, soundtrack doesn't help much either, it doesn't really create a sense of urgency and dread. Thankfully the soundtrack is pretty minimal.

The movie is based on a James M. Cain novel but Robert Blees's screenplay restructures it. For instance Dorothy doesn't make an appearance in the novel until the final quarter, whereas here she's introduced as the very first character and plays a more important part. I haven't read the novel, so I can't say whether this screenplay/movie is better or worse than the novel. But I will say that 'Slightly Scarlet' is a pure noir to me, bright colors and all. I wouldn't say it's a great noir, but it's good and entertaining and definitely delivers.


Friday, February 28, 2014

The Dark Corner (1946)

After 'Laura' became a box office hit in 1944, 20th Century Fox wanted to cash in on its success. One of the movies they hoped would continue the profitable streak was 1946's 'The Dark Corner', and it did prove to be a successful movie. The movie was based on a story by Leo Rosten which appeared as a serial in 'Good Housekeeping' magazine in 1945 (under the pseudonym Leonard Q. Ross). 'The Dark Corner' is a far darker and more typical noir movie than the more stylish & upper-class 'Laura' however, but there's a clear connection between the two due to the character played by Clifton Webb, which I'll get into later on. The screenplay was penned by Jay Dratler, who also worked on 'Laura's screenplay, and Bernard Schoenfeld ('Phantom Lady', 'Macao'). The movie was directed by Henry Hathaway, with Joseph MacDonald handling the cinematography. They also worked together on a couple of other noirs including 'Call Northside 777' and 'Niagara'. Cyril Mockridge ('Nightmare Alley', 'Where The Sidewalk Ends') did the (sparse) musical score.

Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens) is a private detective in NYC, with Kathleen Stewart (Lucille Ball) as his secretary. One day they notice a man in a white suit (William Bendix) is tailing them. Galt sets up a trap for the guy, who uses a lifted wallet to pretend he's a Fred Foss, and after some violent coercion 'Foss' explains a guy named Jardine hired him to tail Galt. Tony Jardine (Kurt Kreuger) was Galt's old partner in a small lawfirm back in San Fransisco, who did some blackmailing of rich married women on the side and who framed Galt for manslaughter after Galt threatened to expose him. After doing a 2 year stretch in prison, Galt relocated to NYC to start a new life/career. Jardine in the meantime has also moved to NYC and is having an affair with Mari Cathcart (Cathy Downs), the wife of wealthy art collector and gallery owner Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb). Galt however had no idea about Jardine moving to NYC, and tries to figure out why Jardine wants him tailed. Unfortunately for him, Jardine ends up dead in Galt's apartment, with Galt drugged and the poker used to bash in Jardine's head in his hand. Now Galt has to try and figure out what's going on, who's behind it all, why he's used as a patsy and how to clear his name.
'Listen... If you don't wanna lose that stardust look in your eyes, get going while the door's still open. If you stick around here, you'll get grafters, shysters, two-bit thugs and maybe worse... Maybe me.'
'I like those odds. I'll take them.'
It shouldn't be too hard to figure out from the synopsis above what's broadly going on in this movie, and it's not hard to figure out fairly early on in the movie either. But it does not matter too much, because a lot of this information is not revealed to Galt until much later in the movie, so it's still interesting to follow Galt around, and seeing him and Kathleen chasing leads that end up going nowhere. What's great however, is that small and seemingly insignificant things become events that help move the plot forward later on in the movie. When Galt corners 'Foss' in his office, 'Foss' accidentally spills ink over Galt's hand, which Galt wipes off on 'Foss's white suit. This ink stain returns later on in the movie to provide a lead to Galt, the same with a hanger attached to 'Foss's keys. There is also an innocent little girl with a penny-whistle who lives in the same building as 'Foss'. Essentially, the story feels much more convoluted than it really is, but the attention to detail and small things that turn out to be important, or seemingly so in any case, aids a lot in the enjoyment of the unfolding of the plot.

As far as noir actors go, Mark Stevens is underrated in my opinion. I enjoyed him in 'Time Table', but also for instance in 'The Street With No Name'. He was never seen as a lead actor who could draw in an audience however, which might explain why he's billed fourth behind Lucille Ball, Clifton Webb and William Bendix, despite being the movie's protagonist. There's a very nice write-up on him here, with more information on his life and acting career. Here he plays a seemingly typical noir private detective, but with a twist. Where Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe etc are pretty tough to the core, Bradford Galt talks the hard-boiled talk, but doesn't always walk the hard-boiled walk. He's prone to breaking down and feeling lost, desperate, when things get tough or he hits another brick wall. Galt is much more vulnerable than Spade or Marlowe, and Stevens plays him pretty well here, even if he comes off as a dead ringer for Alan Ladd appearance-wise at times. Some critics have judged Bradford Galt as being 'whiny', but I found it to be pretty cool, it makes for a nice change from the usual tough-guy detective. Galt/Stevens explains his vulnerable, lost side pretty well in a great quote, which would never have been said in this 'what the hell is going on, what's happening to me?!' way by Spade or Marlowe:
'I feel all dead inside. I'm backed up in a dark corner and I don't know who's hitting me.'
Lucille Ball plays Galt's secretary Kathleen Stewart as a witty and motherly type. She's both falling for Galt, and he for her, as well as taking care of him in a motherly fashion. Kathleen helps Galt get back on his feet when Galt succumbs to another bout of sulking and feeling like nothing's working out. It's an uncommon male-female dynamic in film noir and it works very well here, due to Ball and Stevens's acting. Lucille Ball was still several years away from her iconic role in 'I Love Lucy', and would appear in another noir, 'Lured' in 1947. But her face is instantly recognizable and she has this infectious bubbly vibe, without her character becoming an out-of-place comedic type. She's a pleasant surprise here. Lucille Ball would afterwards speak about this movie and her experience filming it in not-so-kind words, but it doesn't show in her performance, which is highly enjoyable. She was on loan from MGM at the time as she was trying to get out of her MGM contract, and she also had a less-than-stellar experience working with Henry Hathaway on this movie, neither of which probably helped her feel good about doing this movie.

Bendix is always solid in noirs ('The Blue Dahlia', 'The Web'), where he predominantly played a somewhat boorish/brutish guy usually on the wrong side of the law or if he was good guy like in 'The Web' there's still something sinister/crooked about him, and that's the kind of character he plays here as well. He would become famous as Chester Riley in the comedy series 'The Life Of Riley' but he was a much more versatile actor than that, and his noirs prove it. With his big frame and oaf-ish look he could play a mean tough guy as well as a loveable teddybear-like guy. There's a funny exchange between him/Foss and Clifton Webb/Henry Cathcart where the differences between the characters' backgrounds are like fire & water. Foss is a man from the street and Cathcart is a sophisticated, educated man and their respective diction reflects this. Cathcart doesn't speak or understand Foss's language, such as 'crusto-busto' which means 'a flop'. But when they talk to Galt on the phone, it becomes even funnier when Cathcart whispers instructions to Foss who relays them to Galt:
Cathcart: 'Tell him you need $200 to leave town.'
Foss: 'I need 2 yards, powder money.'
Small details like that in the script really work in a movie's favor as mentioned before, and it does so here as well. Making sure people speak in a manner that is in line with the character's background, makes a movie more realistic.

Clifton Webb essentially plays Waldo Lydecker, his role from 'Laura', here. Again he plays a smug and wealthy debonair, and again he plays a character who's obsessed by a younger woman, and again there's a painting involved with a portrait of this younger person. In this case the painting only resembles the younger woman, Mira, and is a not direct portrait of her, but the resemblances between both Cathcart and Lydecker are too apparent to ignore. Clifton Webb seemed to be made for these roles, and he's great here again. He doesn't dish out as many memorable put-downs and comebacks here as in 'Laura' tho, but he gets his fair share of quote-able lines still. His obsession, and here also his wife, Mari, played by Cathy Downs, doesn't electrify the screen nearly as much as Gene Tierney does in 'Laura' however. Mari is fairly demure, even though she has an affair with Jardine, she's not made out to be a femme fatale type of woman. She comes across as someone who's not particularly happy in her marriage to Cathcart, but who's also not resentful towards him. She's the least interesting character/part of this movie for me, even when Cathcart explains his reason for loving Mari when showing the portrait to some wealthy clients, with her present, she doesn't seem upset or in any way emotionally invested in it. I think a more sultry actress/character would've worked better in adding another edge to the movie. Ella Raines came to my mind as I was watching this movie.

The movie's look is pure noir, MacDonald did a really good job here. There are a ton of dark shadows and contrast-rich shots, and the movie is beautiful to look at in all its visual chiaroscuro noirness. Almost every shot is lighted in a great, but also effective and meaningful manner that works within the story. 'The Dark Corner' can definitely be used as a great example of 'the noir look' if one wants to show people what noir looks like, it's got a ton of great chiaroscuro shots. The main problem this movie has, is that it reminds too much of better noirs, of the classics. The references to 'Laura' have already been mention ad nauseum, but Galt's office and the way shadows are used within it, also remind of Spade's office in 'The Maltese Falcon'. The lack of a real femme fatale also doesn't help. 'The Dark Corner' is not a movie that belongs in the top echelon of the classic noirs, but it's on the second rung, looking up. It is a well-made noir that has almost everything a truly classic noir needs, and it's a treat to watch. It probably is a bit under-rated and deserves more credit in my opinion. Highly recommended.